LED Lights, Like Incandescent Bulbs They Replace, Contain Toxins: UC Irvine Research

LED lights have been marketed as environmentally preferable alternatives to traditional light bulbs, but many contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially hazardous substances, according to new research out of UC Irvine.

"LEDs are touted as the next generation of lighting," says Oladele Ogunseitan, chairman of UCI's Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention, in a university statement about his published research. "But as we try to find better products that do not deplete energy resources or contribute to global warming, we have to be vigilant about the toxicity hazards of those marketed as replacements."

A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor light source that for years has been used as indicator lamps for aviation, automobiles and traffic signals. Amid concerns about global warming and the need for devices that are safer and use less energy, LEDs have increasingly replaced traditional bulbs that contain mercury. An expansion into the household market is currently under way.

Oladele Ogunseitan does illuminating research into environmental threats from everyday items.
Oladele Ogunseitan does illuminating research into environmental threats from everyday items.
Photo by Steve Zylius/University Communications

Photo by Steve Zylius/University Communications
Oladele Ogunseitan does illuminating research into environmental threats from everyday items.

For the research, Ogunseitan and fellow scientists at UCI and UC Davis crunched multicolored lightbulbs sold in Christmas strands; red, yellow and green traffic lights; and automobile headlights and brake lights. They then measured the contents and found differing levels of toxic materials, including lead and arsenic.

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Low-intensity red lights contained up to eight times the amount of lead allowed under California law. High-intensity, brighter bulbs had more contaminants than lower ones. White bulbs contained the least lead but had high levels of nickel.

Referring to the holiday lights in the January 2011 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, the team wrote, "We find the low-intensity red LEDs exhibit significant cancer and non-cancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead."

Results from the larger lighting products will be published later, but as Ogunseitan indicates, "It's more of the same."

Toxins like those Ogunseitan and his team found in LEDs have been linked to different cancers, neurological damage, kidney disease, hypertension, skin rashes and other illnesses. The copper used in some LEDs also poses an ecological threat to fish, rivers and lakes.

As of now, LED products are not classified as hazardous waste. Ogunseitan believes his research exposes a need for mandatory product-replacement testing, something that was never done as manufacturers put LEDs in products that replaced incandescent bulbs.

As precautions, Ogunseitan advises refraining from throwing LEDs in landfills. He also recommends that crews dispatched to clean up vehicle collisions wear protective gear and that homeowners don gloves and masks when handling broken LED lights.

You won't be overcome by cancer if you breathe the contents of a broken or cracked LED light, he notes. It'll just be one more toxin your body is exposed to on the road to the Big C.


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